Several preseason tournaments are already under way in the world of men's college basketball. Most people don't start thinking about college basketball until February or March, but the preseason tournaments are often informative guides about who the real contenders and the pretenders are. As far as video hoops go, EA's March Madness 2005 is a pretender. While it borrows some new features from NCAA Football 2005 and includes a revamped play-calling system that is actually fun to use, a broken dynasty mode and choppy online play mar an otherwise good basketball game.
On the surface, March Madness 2005 looks and feels very similar to its NBA cousin, NBA Live 2005. The engine is pretty much the same, which means the players move about the court fairly quickly, with a slight tendency to ice skate while changing directions or getting pushed by another player. You also have access to the freestyle juke moves via the right thumbstick, as in the NBA Live series. Assuming you have a good ball handler, the freestyle moves in March Madness work a little too well in shaking off your opponent--a college basketball game ought to place more emphasis on team play than on one-on-one play. The effectiveness of the pro hop move has been toned down, however, just as it was in NBA Live 2005. On the plus side, the new freestyle air features of NBA Live 2005 have been imported into March Madness 2005. This means that when you hit the offensive glass, you can choose from three different buttons to attempt a regular rebound, a tap-in, or a put-back slam. The latter is difficult to pull off, but it's extremely satisfying.
Certain other flaws are also shared with NBA Live 2005--the most annoying of these is the speed at which the computer can recover from its mistakes. All too often, when you get a steal, the computer gets back into transition defense immediately, reducing the number of fast break opportunities you get. When you do get out on the break, the players running on the wings often stop at the three-point line instead of cutting all the way to the basket as they should, which prevents you from getting layups and dunks in transition.
Players also recover much too easily in half-court defense to block shots from behind. When you make a pass behind the defense or juke out a defender, you'll find yourself getting stuffed from behind by a big man. This cuts both ways, as your artificial intelligence teammates can often cover up for your mistakes and swat driving opponents from behind when you get beaten on defense. Overall, the blocked shot numbers in an average game seem far too high. Oddly enough, you'll be fouled quite often while getting out and challenging jump shots. In real life, there should be more shooting fouls incurred on driving layups and dunks and almost none on jump shooters, but this is not the case with the default slider settings of March Madness 2005.
The good news is that the developers have tweaked the play-calling system a bit. The new feature is called "floor general" and it is similar in function to the scripted play calls mapped to the D pad in most basketball games. The floor general system allows for six different quick plays; you tap up on the D pad once to access the first set of three plays, and tap up a second time to reach the second trio of plays. The nice thing about floor general is that if you're ever confused about how the play should proceed once you call it, you can click down on the right thumbstick to bring up icons that pop up on the floor and around your players. These icons show you which players you can pass to, or in which direction you can dribble the ball in order to run the play you've chosen.
There are numerous sets available to you in the playbook, including a variety of motion sets, the 1-4, and double high post. The nice thing is that each set usually includes several options, so the six quick sets you call from the D pad actually comprise 12 or more different plays. From the 1-4, for example, you can pass from between the circles to the wing; the passer will then cut underneath the basket for a layup, or run to the corner for a three-pointer. Alternatively, you can dribble out to one of the wings, and that player will vacate the spot, run the baseline, and come off a staggered screen on the weak side for an open three-point shot. The plays all work pretty well and are fun to do once you understand how they are supposed to work.
March Madness 2005 has borrowed a couple of features from NCAA Football 2005. One of these is the ranking of "25 toughest places to play." If you're an opposing team heading into a hostile stadium like Kentucky's Rupp Arena, Duke's Cameron Indoor Arena, or Oregon's McArthur Court, you can expect to deal with a shaking camera and a vibrating controller as the home crowd gets raucous and rowdy. If the home team goes on a run or gains momentum, the crowd gets louder and the screen shakes even more violently. If you take control of the game as the visiting team, you can take the crowd out of the game, just like real life. This sounds a lot better on paper than it is in practice, as the feature doesn't seem to be implemented in March Madness as well as it was in NCAA Football 2005. For example, you can't exhort the crowd for more noise if you're the home team, whereas you could do so in NCAA Football 2005.
The other feature that March Madness borrows from NCAA Football 2005 is the modeling of team discipline. Unfortunately, it comes off as a somewhat half-baked implementation once again. In the revamped dynasty mode, you can keep track of important notes on your team via PDA e-mails, just like in NBA Live 2005. You'll receive notices from the team doctor about player injuries, notes from prospective recruits as you scout and woo them over the course of the year, and encouragement and advice from your school's athletic director. You'll also receive notices about player misconduct, which you must deal with lest you attract the attention of the NCAA, who will be swift to levy probation if you can't keep your players under control.
The problems with the player discipline feature run wide and deep. First of all, the rate at which disciplinary problems crop up is alarmingly high. It also feels random. It seems like you can hardly go a few weeks in a season without receiving notice of a player skipping study hall or breaking a team rule. Your only recourse in this situation is to suspend that player for a certain number of games--the longer you suspend a player, the less heat you'll receive from the NCAA. The problem here is that prior to the start of a season, you must set your recruiting and discipline budget. These act dependently of one another, so the more points you set aside for recruiting, the less you have for discipline and vice versa. But it seems counterintuitive that you'd need to spend anything to simply suspend a player. What's even more ludicrous is when you are out of discipline points in the middle of the season, which renders you unable to suspend a player for violating a rule. It was extremely frustrating to see our chosen school ejected from its conference and relegated to a mid-major conference even after levying numerous player suspensions and keeping our NCAA attention well in the "safe" level.
There are other issues with the dynasty mode. Your athletic director, for example, will hound you incessantly throughout the year about spending more time on the recruiting trail, even if you've already secured enough verbal commitments early on to fill all your open scholarship slots. Also, the manner in which you win and lose job security even over the course of a single season is alarmingly volatile. Go on an eight or nine game winning streak and you'll see your job approval rating triple or more. But drop four or five straight in that same year, and you'll lose all of that love in a flash. Fan approval in real life can be that fickle, particularly with big-time programs, but athletic directors are usually not swayed so easily in either direction.
The other aspects of dynasty mode--being able to intervene and play a game from halftime, and year-round recruiting and scouting of high school players--work pretty well. It's just unfortunate that the mode's problems with the player discipline feature and fickle athletic directors overshadow the mode's good points.
Aside from dynasty mode, March Madness 2005 offers quick play, rivalry mode, and a slate of college classics. In the college classics mode, you'll be able to replay famous situations, or in some cases, entire games from the history of men's college basketball. Duke fans can attempt to replay Christian Laettner's miracle shot to beat Kentucky from the 1990 East regional final. UCLA fans can relive Tyus Edney's mad coast-to-coast dash and layup to beat Missouri at the buzzer in 1995. Completing these situations unlocks some of March Madness 2005's 75 all-time classic teams for play in the quick match mode.
Perhaps a more significant feature is the game's online mode. March Madness 2005's front end shares the same front end as other EA Sports games, allowing you to check up on news, look up stats and leaderboards, and see real-time, real-life sports scores on a ticker. You can also set up tournaments and of course play head-to-head against other players online. The unfortunate thing is that on both PS2 and Xbox Live, March Madness 2005's online mode is pretty choppy, which makes the game difficult to play as it throws off your timing on jump shots and free throws. Hopefully the latency issues will get addressed at some point after retail release, but for now, if your primary concern is online play, it's difficult to recommend March Madness 2005.
As far as presentation goes, March Madness 2005 is starting to look a bit dated. Player models lack detail and look a bit blocky compared to other basketball games. What saves the game in the graphics department are the varied animations, especially with regard to dunks and post-entry passes. On the sound front, EA made the odd decision to use licensed songs such as Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle," and Lifehouse's "Hanging by a Moment," played in college band form. Yes, it sounds about as awkward in the game as it does on paper, but thankfully you only have to deal with these tracks in the menu screens. In-game, you'll still hear the more traditional college fight songs, the roar of the crowd, and the familiar commentary of Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale. Those of you who hate Dickie V needn't worry though--you can shut off commentary in the options menu.
In the end, March Madness 2005 strikes us as a game that could have used a bit more polish before being released. It's a shame that the problems with dynasty mode, specifically the faulty implementation of player discipline and overanxious athletic directors, cast a pall over what is otherwise a solid college basketball game. It also remains to be seen whether March Madness 2005 can eventually deliver a decent online experience, as our early play-testing was marred by noticeable lag. If you're in the market for a video basketball game, there are better choices than March Madness 2005.